Manitoba

Longtime activist and human rights defender Marty Dolin dies

A once growling, booming voice for refugees and newcomers in Winnipeg is now silent.

During his time at Welcome Place, Dolin helped thousands of people make Canada and Manitoba their new home

Marty Dolin was a politician, activist and defender of human rights who worked tirelessly for people, particularly newcomers, say those who knew him. (Marty Dolin/Facebook)

A once growling, booming voice for refugees and newcomers in Winnipeg is now silent.

Marty Dolin, the former head of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, died Wednesday.

He was 78.

Described as impassioned and fearless, Dolin was a straight-shooter whose opinions were expressed through a heavy Bronx accent. And those who knew him best say he used those candid ways to better the lives of thousands of people.

During his years with the council, Dolin helped newcomers in Canada and Manitoba settle into their new home by setting them up at Welcome Place.

Janine LeGal holds a photo of herself and Marty Dolin that taken at an event a few years ago. ( Holly Caruk/CBC)

"He swore a lot. He smoked a lot. He drank a lot. He talked a lot. He loved a lot," said Janine LeGal, who worked for Dolin at the council from the early 2000s until 2009 and continued to stay in contact with him beyond that.

"He was just so feisty, and when I think of the word feisty, it's almost an understatement. He was just so present, so alive, so unafraid to say what he wanted to say. He didn't worry about offending people so much but he had the biggest heart in the world.

He had compassion for absolutely everyone. Well, maybe not the bureaucrats [but] he loved the underdog and he was always there for the underdog.- Janine LeGal

"It's so hard for those of us who knew him to even believe that he's gone."

Rita Chahal, current executive director of the council and Welcome Place, called Dolin's death "a big loss to our community."

"Our thoughts and prayers are with Marty's family, first and foremost, and also to the many friends and people that he worked for tirelessly," she said. "Marty always spoke for the people. He was never at a loss for words and, truly, his heart was in the right place."

People who knew Winnipeg activist Marty Dolin remember his work and advocacy. 1:47

Many of the people who found shelter at Welcome Place were later hired by Dolin to work at the residence.

"He gave them their first jobs and many of them are still there. His loyalty will live on through them," Chahal said.

LeGal, who is now a freelance writer, remained involved as a refugee advocate and activist after leaving the council. She says she often contacted Dolin to ask whether he could help with something, and the answer was always "yes."

He was never at a loss for words and, truly, his heart was in the right place.- Rita Chahal

"He just absolutely never hesitated to be there for people. It didn't matter how inconvenient it may be for him," she said.

"He helped so many marginalized people and mentored so many social activists along to way to help other people. He had compassion for absolutely everyone.

"Well, maybe not the bureaucrats [but] he loved the underdog and he was always there for the underdog."

LeGal is among those who have been posting tributes to Dolin on Facebook.

Memorial posts appear on Marty Dolin's Facebook page. (Facebook)

Born in 1939 in New York City, Dolin and his wife left the United States in 1967 in opposition to the Vietnam War, according to their son, Ben.

They moved to Nova Scotia, where Dolin's wife had a brother. Dolin got involved in politics and ran both federally and provincially for the NDP in the early 1970s but failed to win a seat.

The couple split up after about a decade and then Dolin met another woman and moved to Manitoba, where he remarried.

His wife, Mary Beth Dolin, was the MLA for Kildonan and a cabinet minister in the NDP government of Howard Pawley in the early 1980s. She died in 1985 and Dolin ran successfully to replace her, serving as an MLA until 1988.

After his political career ended, he continued to work on behalf of people as a member of the Canadian Council for Refugees, the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council and the Social Planning Council for the City of Winnipeg.

Son in shock

Ben Dolin said his father's death came suddenly and unexpectedly.

"He was in overall good health but the medical examiner is saying it was probably some sort of cardiac event," Ben said.

Dolin had been plagued by a cough for the past few days and called his girlfriend to take him to a clinic on Wednesday morning. But when she arrived at his house, there was no answer and she couldn't get inside.

She called 911 and emergency responders broke in and found Dolin dead.

Ben said she is "pretty distraught" while he is still in shock. He lives in Ottawa and is flying to Winnipeg Thursday.

"I can't imagine how I'm gonna feel walking into his house tonight."

'Presence was so hard to ignore'

LeGal said that when she first met Dolin, he scared her a little because he didn't shy away from speaking his mind on controversial issues.

"His presence was so hard to ignore. For many people it's hard to talk about things that may not be black or white. For him, nothing was off the list," she said. "That made him super special and incredible and just inspiring.

"He's one of my personal heroes. I wish I'd told him that."

In 1994, Dolin published a work entitled Education in a Multicultural Society. And in 2012, he was given the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for his public service.

"He did what his heart [wanted], where his heart was, and he defended the people," Chahal said. "He was an activist and he was a human rights [defender].

"Marty's shoes are big to fill and I'm humbled by the fact that I have the opportunity to be at Welcome Place and work with many of the people he first hired.

"My thanks go out to him. He had a passion that no one can really come close to."

Funeral arrangements are pending. 

About the Author

Darren Bernhardt

Reporter/Editor

Darren Bernhardt spent the first dozen years of his journalism career in newspapers, first at the Regina Leader-Post then the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He has been with CBC Manitoba since 2009 and specializes in offbeat and local history stories and features. Story idea? Email: darren.bernhardt@cbc.ca

with files from Meaghan Ketcheson